Among the top students in their graduating classes, men and women entering Harvard Law School earn similar undergraduate grades and LSAT scores. But as soon as students step into Wasserstein Hall, a dramatic gender disparity emerges.
Indicators suggest that female students participate less and perform worse than their male counterparts over the course of their three years at the Law School.
“For better or worse, when women come to law school, they feel their gender more strongly than they may have in undergrad,” said third-year law student Stephanie E. Davidson, outgoing president of the Women’s Law Association. “I still barely have words to describe why that is or what that means. But you feel like a female lawyer instead of a lawyer.”
Davidson is not alone. Hundreds of students and faculty gathered this spring for Shatter the Ceiling, a new coalition whose goal is to address gender disparities at Harvard Law. The issue of imbalance in the classroom has emerged at the forefront of their discussions, prompting reactions across the campus and the nation over how women and men stack up.
IS SOCRATES SEXIST?
Harvard Law student Jessica R. Jensen hates the Socratic method. “It’s the worst thing in the world,” she said. “It forces you to talk like a man.”
“It made me feel really uncomfortable and incompetent at first, and it really impacted my performance in classes the first year,” Jensen said. “You feel like you don’t know the material really well because you feel like an idiot in class.”
Employed in some form across most classrooms at Harvard Law School, the Socratic method, a teaching style that relies on cold-calling, lies at the heart of the debate over gender issues and serves as a focal point for the Shatter coalition.
Today, many students and faculty have raised concerns over the teaching method, saying that men are more likely to participate voluntarily in Law School classes than women.
In a 2004 study on gender issues at Harvard Law School, a then-third-year law student Adam M. C. Neufeld found that men were 50 percent more likely than women to volunteer at least one comment during class, and 144 percent more likely to speak voluntarily at least three times. The study also showed that 10 percent of students accounted for nearly half of all volunteered comments in first-year law classrooms.
“I think the big point is that many men weren’t talking too,” Neufeld said. “There was a small number of people who account for most of the comments.”
More recently, according to a 2012 study at Yale Law School, men made 58 percent of comments in the classroom, while women made 42 percent.
Yet the root cause of this disparity remains contested, as professors, students, and administrators debate whether the Socratic method—the traditional form of legal pedagogy—needs to be adapted to account for gender disparities in the classroom.
For many in the Law School, the Socratic method is an outdated teaching style that reinforces gender imbalances in academia.
“Women take longer to process thoughts before they feel comfortable to say them out loud than men do,” Jensen said, adding that men feel more natural in that kind of classroom atmosphere.
Because of this disparity, the Shatter coalition hopes to encourage changes to the Law School pedagogy.
“If you can show that the Socratic method makes us better lawyers, then fine, but we need to see that data,” said Lena M. Silver, a third-year Law School student and the co-chair of the Shatter the Ceiling coalition.
Harvard Law professor Lani C. Guinier ’71, who has authored several articles on legal pedagogy, said that the problems described by Silver and her group highlight potential issues with legal education today.
“In short, women’s reaction to law school is an important warning sign, but a warning sign that the problem will not go away simply by focusing on helping the women think more like their male counterparts,” Guinier wrote in an email, saying that the faculty should reevaluate their pedagogical techniques.
Others suggested that the pressures of the classroom environment contribute to women not raising their hands as often as men. “Women are more likely to be called ‘gunners’ or ‘teacher’s pets’ if they participate in class,” said Jean N. Ripley, second-year Law School student and co-chair of the Shatter coalition.
In his study, Neufeld, who said he supports the Socratic method, found that women assessed themselves significantly lower than men did, suggesting that different confidence levels may account for the disparity in classroom participation.
“Volunteering is a fairly socially aggressive act,” he said. “You are making all the other students listen to your comment, you think it is unbelievably important and something that no one else has thought of.”
Yet supporters of the Socratic method discount the existence of inherent gender disparities and argue that it is an essential part of the legal education.
“It’s an extreme form of sexism to say that essentially women in general aren’t capable of dealing with the demands of the Socratic method,” said Harvard Law professor Alan M. Dershowitz.
Dershowitz noted that some of the best Socratic students in his classes have been women. “You cannot generalize about men and women when it comes to their ability to be law students or practice law,” he said. “We have to keep inquiring as to why this disparity exists but we have to do it without divulging into stereotypes.”
Dean of the Law School Martha L. Minow pointed to an ongoing debate over the possibility of gendered dimensions of certain forms of argument and reasoning, saying that it “can’t be the case” that “certain types of reasoning are beyond the reach of a group of students.”
And many professors, including Dershowitz, defend the Socratic method as a critical component of the Harvard Law School education.
“The whole practice of law is Socratic,” he said. “You can’t be an effective advocate without mastering the Socratic method.”
Harvard Law professor Jeannie Suk, who graduated from the Law School in 2002, said she agrees that this pedagogy is critical to teaching students how to think.
“I love to see students grow more comfortable as I did and see how fun it is,” she said. “I believe a hard push from a trusted teacher is necessary.”
Supporters of the technique also argue that the Socratic method in its purest form, with no voluntary participation component, elicits an equal number of comments from men and women. Minow, who has held workshops on different pedagogical techniques to ensure faculty reach every student, recommends cold-calling as a teaching technique to balance participation.
“It turns out that many of the women who would think they would not have something to contribute find out that they do very well,” Minow said.
Although Harvard Law professors do still incorporate opportunities for voluntary response into their courses, some are relying more often on cold-calling to keep their students talkative.
Harvard Law professor Mark V. Tushnet ’67 said that he consciously calls on more women than men “just to move closer to gender balance.”
Suk said uses a similar strategy in her first-year criminal law class. “I find that the more students are called upon to speak the more likely they are to volunteer,” she said.
Overall, there is no right way to teach, according to Harvard Law Professor Gabriella Blum. Blum said she encourages students “to expose themselves to different professors and teaching styles so as to enrich their experience,” she wrote in an e-mail.
THINKING LIKE A LAWYER
Early in his teaching career, one of Dershowitz’s star students approached him with an essay she submitted for another class. In other classes, she had received an A from not only Dershowitz, but also several other first-year teachers—yet she had received a D on her latest exam. After reading what he considered to be a stellar piece of academic writing, Dershowitz asked the student’s professor if an error had been made.
“He said, ‘I didn’t make a mistake, she just didn’t think like a lawyer,’” Dershowitz repeated. “It was clear he had been biased by her gender.”
This exchange prompted Dershowitz to push for anonymous grading at Harvard Law, a policy change that resulted in a dramatic increase in women’s grades.
“But they’re still not high enough,” Dershowitz said.
Though Minow has refused to release data on the gender breakdown of grades, professors said that indicators point to a dramatic disparity between men’s and women’s performance despite blind assessment.
Neufeld’s 2004 study found that women earned lower grades in first-year courses across three years of data, though the disparity varied in part with the content and gender of the professor. The form of assessment, by contrast, did not increase or decrease the grade disparity.
In the study, men were also more likely to receive graduation honors than women, a disparity frequently cited by the Shatter coalition.
“We haven’t created a situation in which women are doing as well as we’d like them to be,” Law school professor Christine Desan said. “Part of that is surely societal, both social and political.”
But the gender grade disparity is not the same at other law schools, according to visiting professor Laura Rosenbury.
“It’s interesting because I’ve been teaching at Washington University in St. Louis, and we don’t have this problem,” said Rosenbury in a video released by the Shatter coalition. “In fact, women outperform their male colleagues both in terms of grades and in terms of law review competition. And so what makes Harvard different?”
Faculty and students alike have struggled to find an answer.
Minow said there is “unequivocally” no difference in undergraduate grades or the LSAT scores of men and women coming into Harvard Law.
“They are at some level puzzling, because the grading in the big classes are completely anonymous,” Tushnet said. “And yet there must be something about the style of a writing or arguing that the faculty prefers that tilts in favor of men.”
Others said they believe that levels of confidence and self-perception may play a role.
“The main argument for this one is the stereotype threat,” Neufeld said. “If you are a high school girl who’s taking a math class, and there’s a general perception that women do worse, you, no matter what your inherent ability, are going to be more anxious because you don’t want to do poorly and reflect that stereotype, and you will end up doing worse because you can’t relax and focus.”
While the cause of these issues remains unknown, in many ways the extent of the problem is also uncertain.
No new grade data has been released since the administration changed the grading system from the standard letter grades to an honors, pass/fail system. A key goal of the Shatter coalition has been access to that data, but Minow has declined to share it.
“We don’t need to have a study, we need to work on making this better,” Minow said. “Do I think there are issues about whether or not Harvard Law School or any law school is conducive to learning for any student? Yes. Might there be gendered dimensions? Possibly. You don’t have to prove anything to me; I’m already committed to addressing these issues, as is the faculty.”
Desan said that as long as she and her colleagues continue to grade, they must take responsibility for the marks they give.
“If those grades suggest that there may be a problem with our teaching or our testing, then we should try to figure out what that problem is,” she said. “We have data that we haven’t explored yet, and I think it’s time that we explored it.”
While Minow said she hopes to diminish the role of grades in the community, some students have raised concerns that beyond the Harvard Law campus, grades remain critical to success.
“I think that potentially a barrier Dean Minow has to face in deemphasizing the prestige of those things is that the legal profession and the academic world still values them,” President of the Student Representative Board Lisa M. Lana said.
—Staff writer Dev A. Patel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dev_a_patel.